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Sure to incite some heated deabte. Although the topic is controversial, is it still relevant? I'd like to think not, but....
By Brent Staples
Published: March 6, 2009
The New York Post touched a live wire with a recent editorial cartoon that was widely interpreted as a racist slap at the U.S. president.
The cartoon satirized the story of a chimpanzee that was shot to death by the police after attacking a friend of its owner. The cartoonist implied that the dead chimp had written the federal stimulus package that President Obama had just signed into law.
The paper was targeted by demonstrators and threatened with a boycott. In an emotional statement broadcast on national television, Julian Bond, board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, described the image as a throwback to centuries past and "an invitation to assassinate the president of the United States."
Criticism seems to have subsided since Rupert Murdoch, chairman of The Post's parent company, the News Corporation, apologized for the cartoon.
But the image should not be rushed off stage too quickly. It has something to tell us about the permanence of racist ideas through the centuries.
Hitler, for example,writing in the early 1930s, attributed white domination of North America to the fact that the "Germanic" peoples here had resisted intermarriage with - and held themselves apart from - "inferior" peoples, including the Negroes, whom he described as "half-apes."
He was not alone in these sentiments. The effort to dehumanize black people by characterizing them as apes is central to our national history. Thomas Jefferson made the connection in his notorious book "Notes on the State of Virginia," in which he asserted fantastically that male orangutans were sexually drawn to Negro women.
By defining Negroes not as human beings but as beasts, the nation rationalized subjugation and cruelty - and justified laws that stripped them of basic human rights.
The case for segregation itself rested heavily on the assertion that animal origins made Negroes feebleminded, smelly and intolerably offensive to white sensibilities.
Acting on the ludicrous premise that people of color had coarser palates, Southern shop owners sometimes refused to sell them "white" foodstuffs, forcing them instead to buy inferior grades of flour and other goods.
Picture postcards, kitchen crockery and other media often showed Negroes with grotesquely distorted faces eating outsize slices of watermelon, which was said by racists to be catnip to the coloreds.
In keeping with the animal theme, Negroes were typically depicted consuming food with their hands, while standing or sitting out in the open. White folks, of course, were shown sitting at the table, dining with utensils.
Ape propaganda reached a hysterical pitch during periods when African-Americans were winning rights or making racial progress.
During the 1950s, for example, racists reacted to the movement toward integration with placards and broadsides depicting apelike caricatures of Negro men performing heinous acts or making sexual advances on the flower of white womanhood.
Every era of racial progress engenders a reversion to type. In last year's presidential campaign, for example, likenesses of the black presidential candidate Barack Obama portrayed as a monkey became distressingly common.
Monkey T-shirts were sold through the mail. Monkey dolls showed up at Republican political rallies. The most instructive image, which was spread over the Internet, depicted the presidential plane, Air Force One, renamed "Watermelon One." It carried the smiling face of a monkey holding, what else, a slice of watermelon.
Does the elction of Obama change all of this? Or is there an undercurrent running through society still to this day?